Woman Good Man Bad
I am lying facedown on a futon on the floor of my attic room in the off-campus house I share with three English majors. Glenn Miller’s Greatest Hits is playing on my turntable—swing music jubilant enough to make a country forget a war.
“I can’t believe you have Glenn Miller!” Ravi had said in a swoon when I put it on. Ravi is perched on my buttocks giving me a back massage. Sometimes he just caresses me, or leans down to kiss my neck or shoulder.
“That feels good,” I say.
He nudges me to turn over, then plants a soft kiss on my lips.
“So I’ve got news for you,” he says.
“You’re not gay.”
“Definitely not,” he says, looking down at my crotch.
* * *
RAVI AND I met in a critical theory seminar taught by Gayatri Spivak, a star professor on loan from Emory University. For two and a half hours every Monday evening, otherwise accomplished scholars sat dumbfounded while this postcolonial deconstructionist (who was also quite sexy) goaded us to “de-fetishize the concrete.” “You Americans,” she observed, after lighting up a Marlboro, “bristling at a little cigarette smoke, while your government shoots microwaves through you.” She had once dismissed us early so she could take an overseas call from Jacques Derrida. Ravi was among the few with the courage to speak in that class, and his elegant accent—he was Indian South African—seemed to lend gravitas to the simplest assertion. He was loose-limbed, with a thick beard and pretty eyes. He liked to tease me with clever digs and smiles, giving my shoulder a flirtatious poke each time we ran into each other.
The first time I seriously wondered if I might be gay, I was standing at the entrance to the Center for the Arts on a crisp fall afternoon. And who do you think came walking along with his macramé bookbag slung across his hip?
* * *
I HAD A history of people assuming I was gay. I’d befriended a gay kid in a high school where you were either homosexual or homophobic. I was madly attracted to girls, but never had a steady girlfriend. When I entered Wesleyan University I didn’t quite get the memo that the main point of college was hooking up, despite all the sex going on in my coed dorm. Walking down the hall on any Saturday night, I heard U2 and sex, Bob Marley and sex, sex between bong hits, bedsprings creaking to Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac, headboards knocking into walls and reverberating through the cinder blocks. Even Tilly, who called her pastor each week from the hall pay phone, was moaning in alternate waves of what sounded like panic and relief.
Late in the spring I met Odette. I’d seen her often in the dining hall, long-legged and accident prone, crashing into furniture, spilling things from her tray, which caused her to laugh and drop more things. She gravitated to a table of her dorm friends who liked intellectual debate. When a loud obnoxious guy claimed Descartes “proved” the existence of God, Odette scoffed at him, her chin jutting out sharply as she delivered a dismissive quip with a backhanded sweep of her arm. She was a consummate contrarian.
She was one character among many, until the day—how does this happen?—I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I introduced myself. We talked for a while as the dining hall emptied out, and she showed a side of herself that was tender, polite, even a little shy. A few days later I looked out my dorm room window and saw her sitting cross-legged in the little graveyard on top of Foss Hill, typing on a manual typewriter. She had the long back of a swimmer. She kept stopping to mark the page with a pencil. The marks were accents—she was typing in French, I discovered, when I walked out to say hello.
On our first date we sat in a booth in a dive bar down the hill in Middletown. We talked for a while, until a long silence wiped the smiles off our faces, and we plunged nakedly into one another’s eyes. The two of us lasted six months, through the summer and into the fall. We wrote love letters, traveled together. People knew us as a couple, though she hadn’t broken up with Ben, her high school boyfriend, who was down the road at Yale. I rarely brought it up, fearing she’d choose him over me. Each time she hopped in her car and drove off to visit him was a fresh humiliation.
Worst of all, we hadn’t consummated our love. We never advanced past foreplay, and neither of us broached the subject in conversation. For my part, I was a virgin and terrified of sex. I assumed it was just a case of extreme shyness. I was immensely turned on by Odette, who I hoped would enable me to cross the threshold into sexual experience.
The problem was she wouldn’t touch me. We’d kiss, and press against each other, I’d feel up her breasts and buttocks, and hear her heavy breathing, but she would hardly reciprocate my touch, and my penis seemed to be off-limits. Was she putting a lid on sex with me until she made a decision about Ben? Or was she waiting for me to take control? Did the contrarian in the dining hall, and the scholar in the graveyard, have a Victorian policy of never initiating anything in bed?
There were so many times I could have asked or said something, but I froze. She never spoke of sex either. Despite a deep and obvious love, we withheld ourselves from each other. In my pain and confusion I started to resent her. I didn’t speak of that either, though I wrote hateful things in my journal. On a fall day in my sophomore year, feeling particularly tortured, I walked to the coed frat house where she lived. I arrived in tears. She hugged me hard and said, “I think you need to break up with me.” Breaking up should have been a relief, but it was devastating.
* * *
I PURSUED OTHER girls, though never for long. Asha, from Trinidad, was smart and enchanting. We danced close at parties, alternating back to front. I vaguely remember getting up from her mattress on her dorm room floor after just a few kisses, and making an excuse to leave. Dina had dark curly hair and large almond-shaped eyes. She was two years younger than me, and kept her tights on in bed (her mother’s orders). I was relieved just to spoon all night. Tonya was tall and quirky, had acne, was beautiful, and always wore jeans. We met as sophomores in a European Intellectual History class, had a long flirtation, and didn’t make out until I visited her in Boston after college, after which we quickly lost touch. I lost Patrice in a cornfield. We pulled over to the side of the road and waded into separate rows of corn. We must have found each other before driving back to campus, but all I remember is losing her. Nina liked studying with her door open and her stereo on. On a whim I drifted in from the hall and offered her a shoulder massage. From the way she surrendered to my hands I knew it could have gone further, yet I drifted back out the door.
I kept to myself. I went for long runs. I emptied the trash early in the morning at the high-rise dorms (a work-study job no work-study students would take). I studied way too much. When my eyes were bleary from reading, I’d wander aimlessly in Middletown. I was grateful when it rained because I wouldn’t have to see my peers necking on campus lawns. I couldn’t figure out what was keeping me isolated. I’d scribble notes in the margins of philosophy tomes I was reading, as though I’d found clues.
One morning walking across campus I passed a girl I’d once made out with, another at the mailboxes in the student center, a third on my way to class. Each time, we briefly made eye contact, but didn’t speak. I barely remembered I’d kissed them. This place is filled with ghosts, I thought, not realizing I was the ghost, shuffling through Wesleyan in a fugue state.
* * *
KATE WAS A pale, stoic freshman in the Zen Buddhism class I TA’ed as a junior. She said she had a dashiki that might look good on me, and invited me to her room. We started kissing on her bed, but then she pulled away to give full disclosure: “I’m fucking my high school English teacher,” she said. “That’s why I go to New York every weekend.” She was also friends with his wife, and babysat their kids, so she figured she should probably cut things off with the teacher. She said this all without a hint of affect or emotion. (Maybe that’s what drew her to Zen.)
Sitting on the bed beside this slim-hipped girl, who looked no older than sixteen, and whom I’d assumed was a virgin, I was overcome with fear. Partly I feared for her in her situation, but mostly I feared for myself. Everyone but me was fucking. Something was very wrong. I didn’t tell Kate or anyone else I was a virgin. If that news ever got around it would only deepen my shame, and leave me feeling more cursed than I already was.
I woke up late the next day in my own room and startled myself in the mirror: I still had on Kate’s brightly striped dashiki, which made me look ridiculous and pale. I drew closer to the mirror, examining the blond and reddish whiskers in the beard I was growing. And something else: my hairline had become shockingly high at the temples. When did that happen? I ran my hand through my hair, pulling it back repeatedly, examining the impending catastrophe.
* * *
I BEGAN TO wonder if I was gay. I didn’t particularly want to be gay, but I wanted an answer to why I froze up with girls. I was also depressed, insomniac, and vexed by headaches. Actually it was one continuous headache, the tension and volume rising late in the afternoon each day. A chiropractor diagnosed me with TMJ—Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (or Totally Messed-up Jaw). He couldn’t tell me what was causing it, just that it had a lot of “stressors,” one of which was stress.
A campus therapist, a thin guy in a sweater who jotted notes on a clipboard as we spoke, rendered his evaluation: “Your problem is you’re an angry man, you complain incessantly, you look down on others, and so you have no friends.” He then informed me that the university alloted three mental health counseling sessions per student, and this concluded our third session. Then the asshole, who’d diagnosed me as an asshole, wished me luck.
Was I angry because I didn’t want to face being gay? Yet it was women, never men, who caused me to lose my page in the library as I saw them glide across the room in colored tights and miniskirts, stepping through columns of sunlight from high windows. A random glimpse of femininity could wipe out all sense of who I was. At times it felt violent. One moment I’d be sitting calmly in class, then the sight of my philosophy professor brushing the locks from her face with slender fingers set off a depth charge planted in my chest.
Susan Lourie, a massage therapist I went to for the headaches, told me I needed to stop weight training and running long-distance. She was also a dance professor, so I started taking her modern dance class. “I didn’t know you were a dancer,” people told me. I told them I wasn’t. But my body took to dance, which felt liberating and sensual. And I liked wearing men’s dance tights, though I wished they weren’t so thick. I wished they were women’s.
I still had the pair of purple tights Odette had loaned me one Halloween. I’d worn them, with running shorts and a carnival mask and lipstick, to a couple of parties, where people couldn’t recognize me or my gender—not at first. I kept those tights in a drawer, along with some panties, and a few other girly things I’d found left behind in the laundry room. Putting them on brought me comfort, and I fantasized about being a girl. I’d fantasized all my life about being a girl. Mrs. Rowe, my high school art teacher, had introduced me to the word “androgyny.” “Everyone needs to be androgynous,” she proclaimed. I told myself that wanting to be a girl meant I was androgynous, and all the more secure in my masculinity, though by my junior year at Wesleyan nothing really made sense.
I knew it was pretty messed up, and not exactly romantic, to ask a gay man to help me determine if I was gay. I half expected Ravi to administer a postcolonial tongue-lashing when I propositioned him. But all he did was smile, and ask what I was doing Friday night. We went to my attic room, where I put on Glenn Miller. “OK if we take this off?” he said, lifting my shirt. I took off his too. He didn’t try to kiss me—I think he saw how nervous I was. He suggested we start with a massage. He was wonderfully tender, but I wasn’t excited or turned on.
“Too bad,” he said, lying beside me on the futon.
“Too bad,” I said. On the stereo, a band singer was crooning “My Prayer,” a vapid song of endless love.
“If it was any man,” I said, “I’d want it to be you.”
“I can’t believe you have Glenn Miller.”
* * *
I DETERMINED TO plumb the mysteries of gender, equipped with the Wesleyan course catalogue, which cross-listed courses from various departments under the category of gender studies. One was Psychology and Literature, taught by Mike Rodney, a popular professor among radical feminists on campus. Professor Rodney was a stocky, balding, bearded man who lived communally in a house of women. I heard him once fleetingly claim he was a woman. (I would have loved to hear him elaborate on this, though he never did.) He was missing two fingers on his right hand—trigger fingers, it was rumored, which he’d chopped off in the 1960s to avoid the draft. The absence of the fingers wasn’t easy to spot; he kept his right hand perched at his hip, just above the pocket of his blue jeans, where fingers could be tucked inside that pocket.
It was also not easy to see Mike Rodney as a woman, no matter how glamorously he stroked the flyaway hair growing out the sides of his bald head. Though I did once glimpse … something. We were alone in the men’s room of Fisk Hall, the old psych building, standing a few urinals apart. “Hi,” he said, looking over at me. His eyes, when I met them, were sort of misty and alluring, like bygone female movie star eyes. I stood there awkwardly, unable to pee, until he’d finished and left the bathroom.
Professor Rodney had assigned us some Freud, in order to prepare us for when other professors tried to ram the father of modern psychology down our throats. On the subject of penis envy, he said, “Now if I were to turn around to reveal a third arm growing out of my sweater”—he pivoted comically to the side—“would anybody here envy that?” The female students laughed and applauded. The few guys in the room smirked and stayed quiet. I didn’t object to this professor’s interpretations, though I wished the class was just that—a class—and not a pitched battle. Male authors on the syllabus were there to be criticized, while the women were feminist heroes. It reminded me of the talk show spoof I’d seen on Saturday Night Live, where Jane Curtin played a host who said, “Welcome to Woman Good Man Bad.”
“Woman good man bad” was already my worldview. As a child, it never escaped my notice that it was always boys doing the fighting, getting dirty, getting in trouble, sitting glumly on the bench outside the principal’s office. Whereas girls were graceful, clean, kind, with exquisite handwriting. You could maybe map these impressions onto feminism, though the fact that I considered girls incredibly fortunate, and wondered if boys were so angry and violent because they didn’t get to be girls, was not a particularly feminist viewpoint. And despite examples to the contrary—boys who were sweet, girls who were brutal—nothing put a dent in my prejudice that male equaled bad, and female equated to good.
Nothing until Wesleyan, where I watched radical feminists attack women who chose to shave their legs or wear makeup, calling them sellouts, which was nothing compared to how they treated men. I was called a “potential rapist”—to my face, more than once—by women who didn’t even know me. I knew it couldn’t have been personal, and that some of them had likely been raped, and all had been given a raw deal by a patriarchal culture. Yet their hostility felt very personal to me, and physically nauseating.
Needless to say, I didn’t learn a thing about gender in those classes. Except perhaps this: “gender is primary.” I encountered that phrase in a journal article about an experiment where a person seated with their back to a door was asked to guess about the identity of another person stepping into the room. The results led the researchers to conclude that, in the split second we come upon a stranger, the first thing we seek to determine—prior to race or age or class or anything else—is gender. I can’t say if it was good science, but it was compelling reading. And that slogan—“gender is primary”—led to a haunting thought: If gender is unmoored, what happens then?
* * *
SENIOR YEAR CAME and I grew nervous about my future—nervous I didn’t have one. I was surrounded by high-achieving peers headed for law school, med school, business school, internships, and nonprofits fighting to defeat hunger and save rivers. I felt like someone who couldn’t get past the decision of what to make for dinner, only instead of dinner it was the rest of my life, and I wasn’t sure I was hungry.
I didn’t even have a major until I was a second-semester junior, when the dean of students—Dean Denise, we called her—phoned to tell me I needed to pick one. That was news to me. I didn’t think you needed a major at a liberal arts college. “Yes,” said Dean Denise, “you have to have a major.” I asked for a week to think about it. I looked over my transcript, which included courses in Zen Buddhism, German philosophy, existentialism, music theory, physics, astronomy, linguistics, Virginia Woolf, African American literature, acting, dance, drawing, Italian. It looked like someone preparing to go on Jeopardy! Several of the classes had been taught by religion professors, so if the department chair signed off, maybe I could cobble together a religion major.
“Come on in,” said Professor Crites. He was sitting at his typewriter smoking a pipe. “The past comes at you from right out of the future,” he said, reading from what he’d just typed. “Totally,” I replied. Steven Crites, a minister and Hegel scholar, was a short plump man with a white beard who sometimes wore lederhosen. Other religion professors included Ron Cameron, who read the gospels brilliantly and dynamically, as though they were ESPN highlight reels, and the mysterious and charismatic Jim Stone, whose course on phenomenology blew students’ minds and caused several to drop out. What a great department! “You’re going to need a class in early Christianity,” Professor Crites said through pipe smoke, while signing my form. So I became a religion major, which sounded cool when I said it at parties to English majors, who were a dime a dozen at Wesleyan.
Around this time I came to know Sara Cohen, another religion major, who’d just returned from a semester in India. Sara was a short, butch, badass bisexual with a great wit. When sloppy thinkers aired their arguments, she would patiently wait for them to finish before posing a simple question they couldn’t answer. She’d been a youth tennis champion, and maybe this had something to do with her confidence. Or maybe it was because she drove a Mustang. “Find your people,” Ms. Collins, my high school writing teacher, had once advised me. It was my senior year in college, and I still hadn’t found my people. But something I couldn’t place felt familiar about Sara, some type of tribal recognition, though I couldn’t name the tribe.
We took her Mustang down to New York City on a whim one Saturday night. It was already late when we arrived at the Hellfire, a basement S&M club where Sara’s older sister was a bartender. Rivka resembled Sara, but presented more feminine. When she wasn’t bartending she worked at Womero, a women’s erotic video company that had a small office on lower Broadway.
Copyright © 2022 by Diana Goetsch